More than a million people in the UK are affected by eating disorders. Health Editor Barry Nelson talks to a sufferer who seems to be winning her long battle.

AS Sarah Golder poses for the cameras, every bone in her spine is sharply defined, almost sticking through her skin. At the time the picture is taken, she is close to her all-time lowest weight.

At only 4ft 11in, Sarah should weigh about 6st 6oz, but at her most starved she is hovering around the four stone mark. She is so emaciated that doctors tell her they cannot understand why she is still conscious.

Looking back, Sarah remembers: “They told me my blood sugar levels were so low, I should really be in a coma.” That was when she was being given nourishment via a feeding tube through the nose – because she simply couldn’t bear having food in her mouth. Now, she is getting back to near-normal, eating regularly, studying to be a beauty therapist and enjoying life again.

But Sarah, 24, of Wallsend, Newcastle, says she has been through hell since her problems with food began, when she was 13. “It was never about not liking food or wanting to lose weight. I suppose I was unhappy and eating was something I felt I could control in my life. I just fought through the pain of the hunger pangs. It only lasts for so long.”

Always skinny and a keen dancer, it was some time before her mother noticed that she was underweight. “I used to wear baggy clothes to hide how skinny I was. About the only thing I would eat was chocolate.”

Her mother tried to get her to drink milkshakes but Sarah resisted, triggering rows which made things even worse. Things came to a head when she woke one morning and told her mother she felt dizzy. “I didn’t really feel dizzy, I just wanted to get out of school,” she recalls.

Her mother panicked and took her to their GP, who realised she was seriously underweight. She was referred to the eating disorders unit at the Royal Victoria Infirmary, in Newcastle.

Specialists said she needed to rest at home and start a special diet. “They gave my mum a meal plan which involved serving up bits of pasta and tuna in tiny plastic bowls.”

With lots of arguments at home over food, Sarah even told her mother she wanted to go to live with her divorced father, in Leicester.

But she soon found herself under the care of the North-East eating disorders service.

“I went back to school and my weight went up, but I was never eating properly and was always underweight for my height.”

She discharged herself from the treatment plan when she was almost 16, left school, got a job and a year later moved away to live with her then boyfriend. Shortly afterwards, Sarah became so ill that her boyfriend drove her to hospital.

“I was having really irregular heartbeats,”

she says.

ACOUPLE of years later, minus the boyfriend, Sarah returned to Newcastle. That was when she stopped eating again.

“It was when I was stressed that I got into that cycle – I found it really difficult to start eating.”

Her condition went downhill rapidly and she ended up in the RVI eating disorders unit. That was when her blood sugar levels were so low the doctors told her she should be in a coma.

Sarah was put on a nasal feeding tube, which helped to stabilise her.

This began a sequence of admissions to hospitals, either in the North-East or to specialist centres in Preston, Stafford and Cheshire. At the time, there were only four eating disorder inpatient beds in the region, so her GP had to refer her to private hospitals elsewhere.

Recently, Sarah visited the new Juniper House eating disorders treatment centre at Middleton St George Hospital, Darlington, and was impressed with the modern nine-bedded unit. Six of the beds at the private hospital have been commissioned by the NHS in the North-East.

“It’s really good that there are more beds for eating disorders patients, but there really needs to be more support in the community,”

says Sarah.

Mary George, spokeswoman for Beat, formerly known as the Eating Disorders Association, agrees, and would like to see disorders outreach services set up across the country.

Mary estimates there are about 1.7 million people in the UK with eating disorders, with anorexia classified as a severe enduring mental illness.

Sadly, anorexics have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness.

About one in five people with an eating disorder die within 20 years of being diagnosed, due to suicide or long-term damage.

Thankfully, Sarah has made a lot of progress and is now up to about 6st – but she knows she needs to be constantly on her guard against the illness that could have taken her life.

■ The Beat helpline is 0845-634- 1414, or visit